Warner requests update on efforts to protect against foreign disinformation

mark warner newU.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, joined his Senate colleagues in requesting information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) on the agencies’ efforts to educate veterans and servicemembers about online disinformation campaigns and other malign influence operations by Russian, Chinese, and other foreign entities.

Today’s letters follow a two-year investigation by Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) that documented persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting of American servicemembers, veterans, and their families by foreign entities seeking to disrupt American democracy.

In particular, the VVA report found that the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) specifically targeted American veterans and the social media followers of several congressionally-chartered veterans service organizations during and after the 2016 election. The report also revealed that foreign entities are targeting servicemembers and veterans for the purpose of interference in the upcoming federal election.

Virginia is home to roughly 714,000 veterans, approximately 130,000 active duty servicemembers, and their families.

In their letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, the Senators noted that while the VA has prioritized the security of its information systems and infrastructure – including veterans’ personal information – the VA does not appear to have an established strategy for educating veterans about online disinformation efforts targeting them. The Senators urged Secretary Wilkie to consider implementing the VVA report’s recommendations.

“While countering disinformation targeting veterans is not a core VA function, identifying these tactics helps improve veterans’ cyber security and their ability to detect and avoid falling prey to scams and other forms of manipulation,” the Senators wrote in their letter to VA.

In their letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the senators acknowledged DoD has worked to deter online disinformation and other malign influence campaigns by foreign adversaries, but they also called on the Department to implement VVA’s recommendations, consistent with existing efforts to counter foreign malign influence operations.

“Malicious foreign actors are targeting servicemembers using disinformation through social media platforms and other online tools and … countering foreign interference in American elections is critical to protecting the integrity of our democracy,” the Senators wrote in their letter to DoD.

The VVA report’s recommendations for addressing online disinformation targeting servicemembers include directing DoD to “create a working group to study the security risks inherent in the use of common personal electronic devices and apps at home and abroad by servicemembers,” and to “direct commanders to include personal cybersecurity training and regular cyber-hygiene checks for all servicemembers.”

The report also recommended that the VA immediately develop plans to make the cyber-hygiene of veterans an urgent priority within the VA, and educate and train veterans on personal cyber security, “including how to identify instances of online manipulation.”

In addition to Sen. Warner, the letter was led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and cosigned by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Democratic Whip, Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tom Udall (D-NM), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Doug Jones (D-AL), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jack Reed (D-RI), Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ranking Member of the Senate Rules Committee, and Kamala Harris (D-CA).

Following Russia’s unprecedented use of social media to sow discord and influence the 2016 presidential elections, Sen. Warner wrote a social media white paper highlighting ways to protect users on social media against misinformation and disinformation campaigns. Sen. Warner has also written and introduced a series of bipartisan bills designed to protect consumers and reduce the power of giant social media platforms like Facebook. His work as Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence helped uncover Russia’s extensive efforts to exploit social media in the 2016 elections.

A copy of the letter to the VA can be found here. A copy of the letter to the DoD can be found here.

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